Conservative high court upholds state voting restrictions

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Thursday cut back on a landmark voting rights law in a 6-3 ruling upholding voting limits in Arizona that a lower court had found discriminatory under the federal Voting Rights Act.

“The court’s decision, harmful as it is, does not limit Congress’ ability to repair the damage done today: it puts the burden back on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its intended strength,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Republicans argue that the state restrictions are simply efforts to fight potential voting fraud and ensure election integrity.

Biden’s Justice Department had actually taken the position that the Arizona measures did not violate the Voting Rights Act, but favored a narrower ruling than the one handed down on Thursday.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation last year to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entrenched the right’s dominance on a court that now has three appointees of former President Donald Trump.

In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, the court reversed an appellate ruling in deciding that Arizona’s regulations on who can return early ballots for another person and on refusing to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct are not racially discriminatory.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco had held that the measures disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic and Native American voters in violation of a part of the Voting Rights Act known as Section 2.

Alito wrote for the conservative majority that the state’s interest in the integrity of elections justified the measures and that voters faced “modest burdens” at most.

The court rejected the idea that showing a state law disproportionately affects minority voters is enough to prove a violation of law.

In a scathing dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the court was weakening the federal voting rights law for the second time in eight years.

“What is tragic here is that the Court has (yet again) rewritten – in order to weaken – a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness, and protects against its basest impulses. What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting.’ I respectfully dissent,” Kagan wrote, joined by the other two liberal justices.

Native Americans who have to travel long distances to put their ballots in the mail were most likely to be affected by Arizona’s ballot collection law.

Election law expert Rick Hasen wrote on his blog that the decision “severely weakened” Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. He noted that this decision along with others over the past 15 years have “taken away all the major available tools for going after voting restrictions.”

“This is not a death blow for Section 2 claims, but it will make it much, much harder for such challenges to succeed,” Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, Law School, wrote.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was among Democrats who said the high court’s decision “raises the sense of urgency for Congress to pass comprehensive voting rights legislation.” Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts called for passage of his legislation expanding the court to 13 justices “to restore balance to our top court.”

Many Republicans continue to question the 2020 election’s outcome, despite the absence of evidence. Republican elected officials in a number of states have responded by enacting restrictions on early voting and mailed-in ballots, as well as tougher voter identification laws.

Kagan pointed to some of the new laws in her dissenting opinion.

“Those laws shorten the time polls are open, both on Election Day and before. They impose new prerequisites to voting by mail, and shorten the windows to apply for and return mail ballots. They make it harder to register to vote, and easier to purge voters from the rolls. Two laws even ban handing out food or water to voters standing in line,” she wrote.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called Thursday’s ruling “a resounding victory for election integrity and the rule of law. Democrats were attempting to make Arizona ballots less secure for political gain, and the Court saw right through their partisan lies. In Arizona and across the nation, states know best how to manage their own elections.”

Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias vowed the legal fight against the new laws would continue.

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